It’s Easter Sunday and in Little Italy, Sault, a pregnant woman fetches an axe from the woodshed. Back inside, she climbs the stairs and enters the bedroom with care. She doesn’t want to wake her husband, who lies sound asleep after his nightshift at the Algoma Steel Plant. By his bedside, she tightens her grip on the axe, raises it high and brings it down four times. Afterwards, she sits by the fire, arms wrapped around the youngest of her four children. She stays like this for an hour. Eventually, she calls out to a nearby neighbour and tells him what she has done. “Here I am,” she cries, when the police arrive, “Take me. I am ready to die.”
Her name was Angelina Napolitano and she was 28 years old. She, her husband Pietro, and their four children arrived in Sault in 1909. They rented rooms in the Italian quarter and took in boarders to make ends meet. Whatever Pietro had meant to Angelina when she married him at 15, by the time they reached Ontario, he had become her tormentor. He drank and was violent. Envious that others had “houses and money” when he worked so hard, for so little - Pietro began to think of ways in which his wife might contribute.
Two years after that fateful Easter Sunday, Angelina stands in the Sault court about to be tried for his murder. Spectators describe her as soft spoken, small, and sullen. She has little English, and no defence lawyer. On discovering this, Justice Britton appoints Uriah McFadden and adjourns the case till the following day. McFadden has only a couple of hours to prepare for the murder trial.
The next morning, the 9th of May 1911, the only witness for the defence, Angelina herself, relates the events that led to the killing. The court is told how Pietro had begun to pressure her to do bad business with men, and to charge them $2, $3, and $5… She had refused. “I am not a bad woman,” she said. Every morning before work, he would order her to “invite some men in here and get some money for me”. Each night when he came home, he asked if she had earned anything. “If you do not do this sort of thing,” he told her, “I will kill you.” She had good reason to believe he would.
The previous November, Pietro abandoned his family and left Sault. With no money to feed her children, Angelina took in a border. His name was Mr Nish, and presuming her husband gone for good, they became involved. Pietro returned before the month was over. When he saw Nish, he assumed Angelina had done what he had asked. He assumed wrong, but Nish left anyway. Pietro didn’t move into the family home but called regularly, renewing pressure on Angelina to “trade with men”. At breaking point, his wife declared she “no longer wanted him for a husband”. Pietro stabbed her a total of nine times with his pocket knife. Angelina was found stumbling towards the canal, with cuts to her shoulders, arms, chest and face. While she was in hospital, Pietro moved back into their house. He had been arrested for the attack but received a suspended sentence. The court viewed Angelina’s relationship with Nish as due provocation. When she arrived home from hospital, Pietro kept haranguing her to work as a prostitute. While on nightshift at Algoma, he sent men to their home. They arrived at all hours looking for sex. Seven months pregnant, alone with her children, she locked the door.
On Easter Sunday, April 16, Pietro returned from work and gave his wife an ultimatum. He was going to bed, and if she didn’t earn $20 or $30 dollars by the time he woke, he would kill her. In Angelina’s words, she “could not stand this trouble any longer”. He went upstairs, and fell asleep. She fetched the axe from the woodshed, and climbed the stairs. He didn’t kill her, because he never woke up.
McFadden argued that Angelina acted to preserve her life. He wanted Pietro’s violence against her admitted as evidence. Judge Britton refused. In the eyes of the law, there was no “immediate” threat to Angelina’s life. Her husband was “lying in bed”, the judge answered, “in a perfectly helpless condition”. So, in spite of the stab wounds to her face and body, her four dependents, her pregnancy, her lack of any income or family support - Judge Britton declared Angelina Napolitano “a free agent… at perfect liberty to leave”.
After a brief consultation, the men of the Sault jury returned with a verdict. They found Mrs Napolitano guilty, but they recommended leniency. The judge responded with the death sentence. “You will be taken to a place of execution,” he told her, “and hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
The trial was over in three hours. Had she not been pregnant, the execution would have followed just as swiftly. As it was, the date was delayed to August 8th to allow her to give birth. This delay would prove vital.
Britton’s sentence was seen as inhumane, and provoked an outcry. Uriah McFadden continued to help Angelina, distributing petitions for mercy throughout the city. Unimpressed, the local newspaper, The Sault Star stated that Mrs Napolitano richly deserved hanging, and in the editors’ opinion, her execution would be a serious “reminder to newcomers”. In view of such anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s no wonder that the Sault Italian Quarter didn’t petition for Angelina. Italians further afield in Toronto and Montreal supported the growing clemency campaign. As newspapers picked up the story, a movement to save Angelina from the gallows spread throughout Canada. Sacks full of letters were sent to the Justice Department, as tens of thousands of people, men and women, conservative and radicals alike, requested mercy for Angelina. The Minister was bewildered at support for a woman who… “chopped the head of a man to pieces when he was asleep”.
“I am not a bad woman,” Angelina had told the court. The public, for the most part, agreed. Women in particular. One wrote, “she did what I or any other woman would have done”. Suffragists lobbied on Angelina’s behalf, and garnered massive publicity for her case. A Chicago Times reporter, Anna Fishback, picked up the story and sent a petition containing thousands of signatures. The campaign was spreading through the US, and Europe, becoming an international cause and provoking debates around domestic violence, the biased nature of man-made laws, and capital punishment.
Newspapers printed coupon style petitions for people to cut out and sign. Their coverage of the case ignited a sense of people power among their readers: if we all rally against Britton’s death sentence, we could save Angelina from the gallows! The papers also carried photos of the Napolitano children, two boys and two girls, the oldest being seven-year-old Michael. They printed a letter from him to his Mama in jail. “Come home to us soon,” he wrote, “we are lonesome every night without you.”
Angelina waited on death row, knowing little of the campaign. Reportedly Queen Mary of England and Queen Helena of Italy had both written letters on her behalf. Matron Hearst said she was a patient prisoner, who spoke often of her children and wept at night. She spent her time praying, writing letters to her own mother in Italy, and stitching soft white robes for her unborn child. The woman who wielded the axe was also a mother who loved her children.
Nine weeks into the campaign, it was over. On the 15th July 1911, newspaper headlines declared - “Women of all nations united and they won.” The Minister for Justice gave in to public pressure, and commuted Angelina’s death sentence to life imprisonment. In the first ever international clemency campaign; a hundred thousand people had petitioned to save a woman from hanging, and succeeded.
Had the execution not been delayed to allow Angelina to give birth, there could have been no campaign, and things would have worked out differently. Her child was born in Kingston Prison for Women, but died two weeks later. She tried to contact her children, but they were fostered to separate homes. It seems the boys settled, but her daughters Amelia and Rafeala were moved from home to home. Angelina wrote letters requesting her freedom, requests supported by the prison matron and chaplain. Eleven years would pass before parole was granted. She was discharged on the 30th December 1922.
It’s said Angelina spent some years working as a live-in maid for the Nickle family in Kingston after her release. It’s not known if she found her children before she died in 1932, at the age of 50. She’s buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Kingston, only half an hour from the prison. She didn’t travel far from her place of incarceration. Being at perfect liberty and having somewhere to go are two very different things.